The Ferret was invited to the Centre for Investigative Journalism summer conference in London this year, and I went along to represent the Ferret Fact Service.
This year’s conference had a special focus on fact-checking and ‘Alternative Facts’, and included speakers and workshops on verification techniques, how to debunk fake viral stories online and advice on spreading fact checks as widely as ‘fake news’.
Particularly insightful was a presentation by Joseph O’Leary from Full Fact, an organisation which has been a source of inspiration and reference for FFS. I was invited to Full Fact’s offices to see how their impressive operation works from the inside. The Full Fact team has a different approach to FFS in presenting its fact checks, but has pioneered fact checking in the UK and there were a number of practical pieces of advice for smaller fact-checkers such as ourselves.
FFS was also able to introduce itself to the assembled delegates in a short presentation during the conference ‘lightning talks’. There was great interest from journalists in the project and its unique focus on Scottish issues and Scotland’s position in international politics.
As a new fact checking project, we are always looking to improve and refine our approach. Both Full Fact and Alastair Reid from PA and First Draft News talked about fact checking and debunking style on social media. The majority of those in the UK now consume news from social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook, so clarity and impact there is crucially important.
Our fact checks are presented as the claim phrased as a question (e.g. is productivity growing faster in Scotland than the UK?). This approach has been criticised as potentially misleading and inadvertently leading readers to believe the result is likely to be true. Accuracy and informing the public is the primary mission at FFS, and in coming months we may trial different approaches to presenting our fact checks.
The Ferret and FFS are in a unique position in the fact-checking world, as we are the only non-partisan service in Scotland. We are planning to extend our work beyond fact-checking online, having already partnered with newspapers the Sunday Herald and Irish Times, which brings our work to a different audience outside the politically-engaged ‘Twitter bubble’. Our upcoming workshop on fact-checking in Edinburgh will take much from the approaches to fact checking at the conference, including how to critically assess information not just from politicians, but viral stories and memes which have had a significant impact on debate in recent years.
Another important topic of debate this year was the use of tech in the fight against false information online. FFS already uses programs like Buzzsumo to assess which stories and claims are getting traction online, and a talk by PA social media reporter Alastair Reid highlighted a number of very interesting tools to help when debunking. Monitoring sites such as Crowdtangle, Feedly, Facebook Signal and Trendsmap as well as verification tools such as Reverse IP lookup and WhoIS searches have an important role to play in fact-check journalism.
During my three days in London I was gratified at the level of support and praise that small operations, including the Ferret and Ferret Fact Service, received, and I return to Scotland energised to improve and expand our fact-checking project.